Superman – The Movie (1978/HD-DVD)
Picture: B+ Sound: B Extras: B Film: B
Before Star Wars had arrived, Hollywood was
already enjoying having blockbusters balanced with classics that wee about more
than selling tie-ins. One reason the
blockbusters were often better then is because the projects were more ambitious
at a time when the persons running the studios actually knew how to make movies
and even loved film. Warner Bros. was
already on a role when they decided to try and do an upgraded take on
superheroes and Superman.
in their favor were a phenomenal set of animated hit TV shows like DC Comics
did with Filmation in the 1960s, Marvel Comics also pulled off at the same time
with an independent producer, DC was doing at the time with Hanna-Barbera
(which they did not own yet) with the phenomenal success of Superfriends and live-action hits like
the Adam West Batman, Lynda Carter Wonder Woman (which Warner co-produced)
and the continued syndicated success of the George Reeves Superman from the 1950s that a few artificial theatrical releases
originated from by editing a few episodes together. Even the Batman
series had a new feature film made in between seasons. The Mego Toy Company shocked the toy industry
with the insanely high sales success of their 8” action figure versions of both
Marvel and DC characters. So why not
make a big-budget feature version of one of the heroes?
films had been made from comics and similar fiction. Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage (1975) was a somewhat comic adaptation of the pulp novel
hero that was a big disappointment.
Mario Bava’s amazing Danger:
Diabolik (1967, reviewed elsewhere on this site) was one of the best comic
book adaptations, but was not remembered by enough people the way it deserved
to be and the lead was a sort of anti-hero.
Several comic heroes had even been in successful serials of the 1930s
and 1940s, but a big formal feature film (as hard as it is to believe after so
many lately) had never been pulled off.
decided they wanted to go all the way and go after arguably the most famous of
them all, Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster’s Superman. Batman was still too hot in syndication and
trying to do a feature meant comedy and Adam West or bust, but in Superman,
there might be possibilities. Spiderman
was the only other hero who could have competed as a big budget subject, yet
even he was showing up on The Electric
Company and Superman had not been live action in decades. So what should the approach be?
decided they needed to send the message that this would not just be another
all-out comic book comedy, even if the film would eventually have some
humor. They needed for people to know
that this was an ambitious, heavyweight project to be taken seriously and would
spend the money to back up their intent.
In a few unprecedented moves, they hired several red-hot actors to play
supporting roles. For Lex Luthor, they
hired no less than Gene Hackman, one of the hottest actors of the time, of his
generation and known for films that were about something. He was most strongly associated with the
tough, gritty The French Connection
and blockbusters like The Poseidon
Adventure. They also landed Ned
Beatty to play his oafish sidekick Otis.
Beatty was a highly-respected actor for many roles, including the bold
invulnerability he showed in Deliverance,
plus classics like Robert Altman’s Nashville
and Sidney Lumet’s Network. Already, some could not believe the
boldness. Then things became more
hired no less than author Mario Puzo to do an epic treatment of the character,
the writer whose Godfather films
were blockbusters with huge critical praise and a truckload of awards to
boot. However, that would not be the
only carry-over from those hits. For
Superman’s father, they landed no less than Marlon Brando, considered by many
to be the greatest actor of the post-WWII era and innovators of all time. With up and coming Margot Kidder perfect as
Lois Lane and sex-symbol of the moment Valerie Perrine as Luthor’s gangster
mole Miss Teschmacher, they were almost there.
screenplay was so massive, Warner and the producers Alexander & Ilya
Salkind turned to David Newman and Robert Benton (also a respected director) who
had been among the few co-writers of the brilliant script for Peter
Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972,
with Buck Henry, and Bogdanovich) that became a comedy classic and one of the
most influential comedies of all time, even if it itself was a homage to the
entire Screwball Comedy cycle of the late 1930s. Warner and The Salkinds wondered that if with
Mario Puzo, they could do the same for Superhero material. Well, that’s obviously what happened. Both were Warner Bros. blockbusters and you
can see why. They were joined by Leslie
Newman and Tom Mankiewicz (who put the Bond films on the map in the 1970s by
writing the first three) and the script was ready.
direct, they immediately landed Richard Donner, who had just scored a huge hit
with the 1976 supernatural horror classic The
Omen, a film that bad sequels, remakes and rip-offs never could touch. Donner had been doing experimental TV pilots
in the 1960s, worked on several hit TV series and was known as a solid director
whose career was seeing the success he deserved. All that was left was cast the lead role.
many name stars were considered, an unknown actor with a solid stage background
named Christopher Reeve who looked like some of the favorite drawings of the
character at the time was tested and landed the role of The Man Of Steel. With everyone signed, filming began to
complete two films at the same time, though Donner eventually had to put the
sequel on hold to meet the deadline for the release of the first. Despite rumors of a bomb and speculation that
the sometime troubled production would not work, the film opened and was an
instant classic of the genre, establishing the Superhero in the feature film
arena forever, getting huge critical praise and breaking box office records
that even included a few set the summer before by Star Wars.
early segment where we see the brief origins of the character, the film skips
over a huge chunk of Superman history (the Smallville/Superboy era, more
expanded upon than ever, for better and worse) to his arrival as oafish “mild
mannered” Clark Kent. He lands a job at
The Daily Planet and finds it to be a perfect place to learn first hand about
anything bad that could potentially happen, something even The Internet could
not replace as a function that quickly.
Besides the usual potential disasters and criminal wrongdoing, Lex
Luthor has a plot to use nuclear armaments to destroy so much land that he
could take over the world by selling what is left as real estate. Fans will notice that the same plot revised
as a post-9/11 politically correct plot where special crystals replace those
weapons of mass destruction is the basis for Superman Returns.
course, Superman has to stop him, but Luthor learns the secret of kryptonite
and is determined to do what he has to do to make his money and take power. Luthor might be jolly and amused up front,
but he is really far more diabolical than first seems, as demonstrated by an
early killing near his hideout. That is
a moment none of the sequels/continuations have and can compete with the
current Lexcorp Luthor anytime. Because
this was not one of Hackman’s more serious roles, it is no always given the
recognition it deserves, but the irony is clear when you compare him to the
1960s Batman villains.
course, Clark becomes interested in Lane, an aggressive reporter who cannot
stay out of trouble. The love story here
is not trite, well-acted and enhanced by the underrated love theme Can You Read My Mind? written by Leslie
Bricusse with a nice vocal performance by Maureen (The Morning After, Different
Worlds) McGovern. Films had songs
stuck in the middle of their narratives, even causing the storyline to take a
break, but it actually moves the story along in this case.
was not perfect. It took too many
liberties with the comics and even abandoned more of the comics than it needed
to, but what is here is consistent enough to keep you watching. The visual effects were groundbreaking for
their time, which included new ways to make Superman look like he was flying,
but that was not the only think going on here.
The film was solid enough and became a huge hit.
years later, the film holds up very well and more than holds its own against
every Superhero film that has followed since the 1989 Batman and 1998 Blade
launched a whole new cycle of DC and Marvel Comics motion picture
adaptations. We have lost Reeve since
then under unfortunate circumstances, but outside of the voiced animated
versions of the character, five actors have taken on the role since and they
have all been in his shadow, no matter how well they did or how good they are.
had the proper balance of cynicism and upbeat approach that was a real winner
and the later films would quickly lose thanks to The Salkinds. When you watch it again, you’ll see just what
a true one-of-a-kind winner the film really is.
2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image was shot by the great British
Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, B.S.C., known for his groundbreaking work on
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968) brought an amazing aesthetic to this film. The idea of a crystal clear world highlighted
by blues reminiscent of polar lights gave the film a rich visual signature from
Krypton to The Fortress Of Solitude and sold the film as a realizing of a real
world on top of the reality of regular planet earth. It also becomes the polar opposite of the
genocidal land plan Luthor has in mind for the world, offering a good/evil
dialectic obviously missing from Superman
has looked poor for years, even on the upgraded DVD from a few years ago. This time, though it is not always perfect,
this finally brings back the experience of the original 1978 prints. Some of those included 70mm blow-ups which
featured the first-ever 5.1 sound mix configuration as we know it today. Though it was not used extensively throughout
as Francis Coppola and Walter Murch would use 5.1 with Apocalypse Now the same year, the original Star Wars trilogy was
only 4.1 until years later in its many revampings. Nothing needs revamped here, with no digital,
a few optical visual effects that have dated and some fine model work to match
the great set design. Unsworth used real
anamorphic Panavision and proved once again that his amazing work on 2001 was no fluke.
sound was remastered for the recent DVD and carried over to the new DVD, but
this HD-DVD offers the sound in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, which is good but not
spectacular. Some of the audio may be
dated, but as is often the case with even multi-channel films of the 1970s and
even 1980s, the music has better fidelity than the rest of the film and like
the reconstruction of Superman II (reviewed
on HD-DVD and elsewhere on this site) is a bit uneven as a result. At least much of the audio here was not lost
to a producer’s mad butchering and the John Williams score is a classic of the
genre. Another sound upgrade down the
line would be nice.
include a great commentary by Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, a
music-only track, original trailers and TV spots, screen test, Making Superman: Filming The Legend
featurette and Taking Flight: The
Development Of Superman featurette. There
could have even been room for a little more, but Warner has plenty of Superman
titles with more extras including that new documentary about the history of the
character. Superman – The Movie was sold on telling us we’d believe a man
could fly. At the time, someone missed
the point and said the film would pull young people out of their fantasy world
and the comic version of Superman into “reality”, but that was an adult long
past heart & soul and totally in burn-out mode (still so decades
later). The film was a realizing of
possibilities real and palpable, not just futile dreams. At the time, at least, it still seemed like
so much was possible. Then came the
- Nicholas Sheffo